Drive-In Camping at Bottcher's Gap in Big Sur, California

Ah, Big Sur—the legendary California coastline that attracts sightseers from all over the world. The scenery here is as beautiful as it is rugged, and you will not be able to resist pulling over (multiple times) on the side of the Highway 1 to gaze at the jaw-dropping terrain. Big Sur is an ideal place for camping, and this is no secret to the world—which can make it tough to find an available drive-in campsite for a spontaneous weekend getaway. If you don’t want to make a reservation well in advance to secure a drive-in site, your best bet is to take a chance on a first-come, first-served campground. A prime example: Bottcher’s Gap.

Bottcher’s Gap is a small campground tucked deeply away in the northern tip of Los Padres National Forest. When you turn off of Highway 1 onto Palo Colorado Rd., the road becomes very narrow as it carves its way through the trees. If there is a car coming in the opposite direction, one of you will probably need to pull over to let the other pass. The bottom segment of the road is bordered by rustic wooden houses and shacks that would easily pass for old lumberjack dwellings. As you get further into the mountains the road widens, but it becomes steeper and filled with hairpin turns. The surrounding forest is lush and serene, with just a dash of white-knuckle driving mixed into the otherwise soothing experience.  

After the engaging 7.5 mile drive, you will be greeted with the sight of Bottcher’s Gap Campground. The 12 campsites at Bottcher’s Gap are all first-come-first-serve. Three of them are situated right next to a steep drop-off, which provides an epic view of the valley in the distance. The others are a short walk from the parking lot and shaded by a thicker grouping of trees. I would recommend one of the sites perched next to the cliff—it’s great to have such an expansive view right at the doorstep of your tent. Regardless of which site you end up in, the most prime vista can be found at the campground’s helipad, which is just a stone’s throw from the sites. This is where you will find the best panorama of the surrounding landscape with a completely unobstructed view of the vast tree-covered slopes.

Campsite near the drop-off

View from the campsite

Panorama from the Helipad

The amenities of the sites are fairly average but satisfactory. I chose one of the cliff-perched sites, which had a picnic table and a fire ring with a grill grate attachment, as well as a standing charcoal grill. The sites are $15 per night, with some possible extra fees for additional vehicles. The campground manager has a reputation for being a bit of a stickler about noise, but I found him to be helpful and generally laid-back. I only had five dollars on me when I arrived, but he told me I could just deposit the money I had and come back with the remaining $10 later in the day. As we discussed this, I was amazed by the manager’s ability to appear completely unfazed as a large swarm of flies buzzed annoyingly around both of our faces. This was the only real drawback I found to Bottcher’s Gap—the mid-day flies can be relentless. Morning and evening hours seemed to put them to rest, but in the heat of the afternoon you might find yourself with about a dozen small (non-biting) flies encircling you. The only thing these flies love more than your face is the bathroom, which can develop a pretty strong scent. Some have complained about the bathroom smell in online reviews, but hey…it’s camping. 

Panorama from trail

Once you have your campsite set up, your options for exploring can basically be divided into two categories: get back in your car or hit the trails directly connected to the campground. There are a number of trails that stem right off of the campground’s parking lot which provide views in the opposite direction of the helipad’s panorama. You won’t see the ocean much (if at all)—it’s mainly mountain/tree scenes. But if you get back on the road, you can easily access many of Big Sur’s iconic coastal cliff areas along Highway 1. The drive from the campground to McWay Falls is about 30 miles, which can potentially be done in under an hour with no stops or traffic—but you’ll probably want to stop…frequently. With countless postcard-worthy viewpoints along this stunning stretch of highway, it’s hard to resist pulling over every other mile to take it all in. However, I left Bottcher’s Gap around noon, and even with numerous pit-stops for scenery admiration I was still able to comfortably fit in visits to McWay Falls and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, returning to the campground before it got dark.

McWay Falls

I would absolutely recommend Bottcher’s Gap to anyone looking for a no-reservation-required camping option in Big Sur. The only issue with first-come-first-serve campsites is, well…exactly that. You may get a spot, you may not.  I went in October, which is technically the off season. Even on Saturday there were still multiple spots open. However, the campground manager told me that he occasionally has to turn away dozens of people due to lack of availability over popular weekends. So if you do decide to go, remember to bring these two important camping supplies: a strong sense of optimism and a backup plan.

You can find directions and other details about Bottcher’s Gap here.